“Fire and fury.” That’s what President Donald Trump has promised North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. It has a nice ring to it, reminiscent of 2003’s not-terribly-successful “shock and awe,” although far less intimidating than “Drakaris”:
But such big talk in the midst of a situation where the U.S. has virtually no power to change the status quo is frustrating at best and counterproductive at worst. There are no winners in a nuclear war, and any chance to negotiate North Korea out of the global nuclear club was squandered long ago.
To discuss how the Trump administration might play such a bad hand, I talked to someone who has had his hands on a few of the relevant cards. Jake Sullivan was former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s top adviser on global affairs, and conventional wisdom assumed he would have been her national security adviser when she won the election in a landslide. And while that shows the fallibility of conventional wisdom, it does nothing to undermine Sullivan’s position as one of the most informed Americans in terms of the threats the U.S. and its allies face around the world. Sullivan is now a lecturer at Yale Law School and a senior fellow the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:
Tobin Harshaw: Jake, let’s start with North Korea and Trump’s threat to rain down “fire and fury.” How does his rhetoric complicate the U.S. response to Kim Jong Un’s missile and nuke testing?
Jake Sullivan: We do need to send a strong and clear message that the U.S. is serious about North Korea’s efforts to build nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles. And I believe that through Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s statements we have accomplished that effectively. The problem is that Trump seems unable to differentiate between strong, clear statements of deterrence, and bombast and bluster that will only continue a war of words and create the possibility for mistakes and complications. We should be focusing the world’s attention on putting pressure on North Korea, but world attention is instead focused on what Trump will tweet or say next, which is a distraction from the larger issue.
TH: Let’s consider a hypothetical: If Hillary Clinton had won the election, how would her administration have handled Kim’s provocations?
JS: First, I think it’s only fair to acknowledge that this is an incredibly difficult problem and three successive administrations have failed to stop North Korea’s drive forward. Much of what has been done in the last few weeks is consistent with what we would have done — the sanctions in the United Nations, deployment of the Thaad missile-defense system, consultation with allies, reaching out to China.
But there are three ways in which Clinton would have put her own stamp on this. First, you would not have had a president popping off at the mouth and making the situation more complicated rather than clarifying it. Two, she would have recognized that we haven’t brought the sort of pressure on North Korea that that we brought on Iran. Part of this is United Nations sanctions. But it also involves a whole government effort to cut off flows of money into North Korea the way the George W. Bush administration did with Banco Delta Asia. She would have brought in a multi-department effort to make the North Koreans really feel the squeeze. Third, in the context of China, they tell us we have to sit down and work this all out with North Koreans. But we need China not just to put pressure on Pyongyang, we need them to actually join us in the diplomacy. Hillary would have said China has to sit at our side of the table, as they did at the negotiations over the Iranian nuclear freeze, and not just rely on us to do it.
TH: Speaking of the Iran deal, we have reached its second anniversary. How has it held up in the early stages?
JS: I believe that the best evidence that this was a strong deal for the U.S. and our national security interests is what is happening in North Korea right now. If we had not done a deal to put Iran in a box, we could now be talking about them miniaturizing warheads and the other things we are worried about in North Korea.
I believe the deal is working as intended in that it is blocking the pathways to Iran getting nuclear weapons. The deal never covered Iran’s other bad behavior — missiles, support for terrorism, destabilizing the region, human rights at home. Critics say this is a problem with the pact, but it doesn’t keep us from dealing with those other issues. We should do more to put constraints on Iran for its support of terrorism and the like, and the Trump administration should stop using the deal as an excuse for not doing more to confront the regime on these other grounds.
As for upholding its end of the bargain, there is no case that Iran is not complying. Trump is now going to the intelligence community to tell them that they need to come up with an instance of the Iranians not complying. This is the definition of politicizing intelligence.
TH: Trump pledged to tear the Iran deal up while on the campaign trail, yet hasn’t. Is there any point in doing so now, with the U.S. having given up most of its obligations while Iran has many to meet up to?
JS: Walking away from the deal at this point would be folly.
We retain the capacity to re-impose sanctions if they do not comply. They still have assets overseas that can be frozen, and they need to sell oil abroad, which we can curb. We retain the tools to hold Iran to the deal. If we walked away we would be taking the target off Iran’s back and putting it squarely on ours. It would leave them free to move back down the nuclear track.
TH: This week on Twitter, Trump took credit for the nascent modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which actually began under Barack Obama. What do you feel should be our priorities in terms of maintaining our longstanding policy of deterrence?
JS: First, Trump’s claim rings hollow. People who follow this will tell you that in his 200 days in office he has not done a single thing to move toward modernizing our nuclear arsenal.
We need to make sure we have a credible deterrent, underlined by the crisis with North Korea. Still, I share a concern that the plan as laid out in the Obama administration is enormously expensive — up to $1 trillion. We need to have a reliable, safe, credible deterrent that gives us the edge we need. But we need to find a way to do that while reducing the overall price tag. I hope we don’t get on autopilot on this, but find a way to do what we need to do at sustainable cost.
TH: Congress just slapped Trump on the hands with new sanctions on Russia, yet it seems inevitable that we will have to work with the Kremlin on many questions of our global national interest, such as Syria. Is it going to be possible to walk that perilous line with Vladimir Putin?
JS: I have first-hand experience on how we can go about walking this line from when I was part of the negotiating team on the Iran nuclear deal. I was talking to the Russians, but at the same time the U.S. was imposing sanctions on them for Ukraine. We were able to separate an issue on which we were divided from one in which we had common aims, and we were able to advance our objectives on both tracks. I think this can be done. What concerns me most is making sure we have a clear idea of where Russia’s interests lie. I doubt we have common interests in Syria and I worry we will cut a deal that helps Russia achieve it goals and eventually we will have to go back in to clean things up.
Coming up, we will have to work with them on an agreement on securing loose nuclear materials, and on continued efforts to have sensible arms control. I think this can be done. But it requires being clear-eyed about where our interests converge and diverge.
TH: The U.S. just led a huge military exercise in Eastern Europe with NATO allies, and now Russia is undertaking one that dwarfs the West’s in scale. How concerned should we be about that becoming a flashpoint — and maybe Putin trying a “hybrid” military operation in the Baltic states similar to what he did in Crimea and eastern Ukraine?
JS: I’m very concerned that the Russians are going to try to test Article 5 — the mutual-defense pact at the heart of NATO — to show our allies it is hollow. I think they have every incentive to do so. And Trump’s mixed signals on this are only sending a message to Russia that this is up for debate. Whether it is a provocation in the Baltics or elsewhere, we need to be on guard for this. I strongly supported sending U.S. forces to the Baltics because we need to show Moscow that Article 5 means what it says. The other thing is that they will look for other parts of Europe to destabilize, so I am worried about the Balkans and the use of corruption and cyber as weapons that could cause disruption. NATO’s newest member, Montenegro, was recently the object of a coup attempt that apparently had Russian backing.
TH: Many people feel that Trump has gutted the State Department as part of a broader belief that diplomacy gets us nowhere. What’s your best defense of “soft power” as a solution to our most pressing problems?
JS: I would put Iran at top of list. We put a lid on its nuclear program without firing a shot or losing an American life. That was diplomacy at work. Having only a military tool would have put us in a more difficult situation. Terrorism emanates from unstable, chaotic parts of the world. We can bomb cities and force terrorist fighters into the desert, but they will reconstitute unless we have some plan to address it over time. That is how we got Islamic State out of al Qaeda.
TH: The Trump administration, defending itself from accusations of nefarious dealings with Russia during the presidential campaign, has targeted its ire at “leaks” of sensitive intelligence information. Do you think the investigation of these leaks is necessary, or is it a distraction from the larger issue of Russian meddling in our democratic process?
JS: I think it is a baseless ruse, and a transparent one at that, to distract from the real issue: Russia’s influence on our elections and help to the Trump campaign. That’s not just me — senior people in the national-security community want them to knock it off. There is no there there.
TH: We know we face a zillion global threats, from Russia and China to Iran and North Korea to ISIS and al Qaeda. But what lesser-known threat keeps you up at night?
JS: I’m particularly worried about the possibility of another pandemic, a next Ebola. I don’t think this administration has gotten itself organized to respond the way the Obama administration did. Trump will be prone to a hysterical reaction as opposed to a measured one, and that will only make things worse. Trump’s method of handling these things will play to everyone’s worst instincts.
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